Victoria is blessed with attractions for locals, interstate and overseas visitors, but there is one which never fails to attract – Puffing Billy.
Some would claim that Puffing Billy is the jewel in Victoria’s attractions, and it would be hard to dispute that.
The story of Puffing Billy goes back 123 years ago, when a group of people living in and around the Dandenongs decided that they needed a railway in order to get farm produce and timber down to the city and, get other perishable goods, newspapers and the mail back up to them.
At this time access to places such as Belgrave, Emerald and Gembrook was by dirt track only, and, there were times when they simply became impassable.
The decision was made to go narrow gauge, consisting of rail tracks only 762mm or 2’6″. This gauge is far narrower than what is considered as the standard gauge used throughout Victoria, that of 1600mm or 5’3″.
The reasoning behind this decision was simply that narrow gauge enables tighter curves to be taken in the valleys and the difficult terrain that made up the geography of the “hills”. It also requires less space at train stations and importantly, it was cheaper to build.
The biggest disadvantage of narrow gauge is that it can be prone to trains leaving the tracks if going to fast. It’s only accident involving it running off the track due to speed, occurred in 1906. This is the reason why today Puffing Billy runs at a maximum speed of only 25Km/hr, generally averaging 20Km an hour between belgrave and Lakeside.
Riding Puffing Billy is an experience that should not be missed. Riding in carriages built specifically for Puffing Billy back in the very early part of the 20th Century simply adds to the experience.
What many people don’t understand, is that the term Puffing Billy refers to all the trains that run on the line, as well as the line itself. The actual term Puffing Billy was adopted in the 1930’s, and in fact was the name came from the earliest steam engine that was built in Britain, in 1913.
The Puffing Billy locomotives are substantially class NA engines of which Puffing Billy has six. The oldest, 3A, no longer runs and is situated in the Puffing Billy museum at Lakeside.
The others are: 6a; 7A; 8A; 12A & 14A. There is also a much larger steam loco, the Garratt class engine. While the NA class locos can pull 8 – 10 carriages, the Garratt can pull 16 carriages.
You will notice that all the locos are in the Puffing Billy heritage colours of combinations of red, green and black.
Puffing Billy also runs a small number of Diesel trains whose main functions are to replace the steam locos on days of total fire ban. However diesels are also used in shunting capacities at Belgrave.
This is a summary of important moments in Puffing Billy’s history.
- Puffing Billy narrow gauge commenced running in 1900 running from Upper Ferntree Gully through to Gembrook
- Services stopped in 1953 due to a landslide between Selby & Menzies Creek
- The Victorian Railways officially closed the line in 1954
- In 1955 a Citizens Group petitioned the Government to reopen the line. This group later became the Puffing Billy Preservation Society
- In 1955 the service operated as a tourist attraction running from Upper Ferntree Gully to belgrave, through until 1958. At this time the Victorian Railways changed the track to a broad gauge one and electrified the line and so it was closed to Puffing Billy
- In 1962 Puffing Billy reopened and services began to run from Belgrave to Menzies Creek. The track was then extended to Emerald in 1965, to Lakeside in 1975 and in 1998, it was extended from Emerald to Gembrook.
- In 2005 the Puffing Billy Preservation Society celebrates its fiftieth anniversary
- In March of 2014 Puffing Billy carried its 10-millionth passenger since re-opening
- In 2021 the lakeside visitors centre opened at a cost of $20million providing a state of the art centre that embraces the latest in environmental friendliness.
- Puffing Billy is substantially run through the effort of volunteers.
- The train journey from Belgrave to Lakeside, Emerald, takes 1 hr and the trip from Belgrave to Gembrook takes 1 hour and 50 minutes.
- Puffing Billy is open every day except Christmas day.
- Finally the fares –
Belgrave to Menzies Creek
Belgrave to Menzies Creek
Belgrave to Lakeside (Emerald)
Belgrave to Gembrook
Lakeside to Gembrook
CLICK TO BOOK – Booking is essential
At the end of the day, all the facts and figures do not compare to the joy of riding on Puffing Billy. The smell of the steam and smoke reminds you of just how real the experience is.
For a short time dangling legs out of the carriages was banned. This resulted from a tourist bus rolling into the side of Puffing Billy in 2018. However, with the implementation of boom gates on all crossings between Belgrave and Lakeside in Emerald, it is now allowable for visitors to sit on the carriage sills and dangle their legs just as visitors have done for decades.
The journey aboard Puffing Billy takes you through the magnificent Dandenong Ranges, located only one hour east of Melbourne.
With lush fern gullies brushing past and Mountain Ash trees towering overhead, Puffing Billy makes for a wonderful opportunity to relax and breathe in the fresh air whilst the train makes its way through the temperate rainforest weaving through the traditional lands of both the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.
Visitors can experience a range of native Australian birds and wildlife, while also experiencing seeing some of the farms that still exist from those early times at the turn of the 20th Century.
From recent personal experience, it is no understatement to say it is an exhilarating ride and the enjoyment is shared by young and young at heart.
A trip to Lakeside, just outside of Emerald township, is a must. Lakeside boasts of wonderful walks, a beautiful lake with activities on and around the lake, and, the recently opened Lakeside Visitors Centre.
Lakeside Visitors Centre Centre has a full outfitted gift shop. Amusing and wonderful paintings of animals, many presented a railway context, adorn the main walkway that goes through the building. The centre also features a large modern fully functioning restaurant, toilet amenities and, a brilliant museum.
The museum features items directly associated with Puffing Billy, stretching back into the early 1900’s.
The feature piece is the first Australian built steam locomotive for Puffing Billy – A3.
Visiting the museum is free and it’s a wonderful experience wandering around. If you are lucky, you may catch the historical interactive video that plays, triggering a multitude of effects located on and around A3.
Puffing Billy could not operate without the time, enthusiasm, energy and skills of its some 500 volunteers. With a paid staff of 150, mostly behind the scenes, it’s a ration of paid staff to volunteers that demonstrates how vital volunteers are.
Puffing Billy is always looking for new volunteers and there are many entry level jobs.
If volunteers are interested they can then move from entry level jobs into other roles such as – station master; conductor; guard, signalman; track patroller; locomotive fireman and, driver.
Interested? – here’s where to start!
Finally, whilst Puffing Billy is primarily a major tourist attraction, it also boasts of a well developed and ever evolving education program
The programs, which are developed for early years/foundation through to year 10, incorporate multiple learning activities with a focus on an exploration of history through storytelling, a journey into nature, endless discovery, emotional and cultural connection, adventure, discussion of the science and technology underpinning the use of steam and, fun.
Students and teachers are met at the Belgrave Station and taken to a special all-weather schools area. An outline of the day is presented by the Education Officer, who is supported by Education volunteers.
Students and teachers are accompanied to their special school only carriages and depart for Lakeside.
At Lakeside they are met by the Education Officer and education volunteers and the program of exploration and education begins. The students are then broken into smaller groups. These groups rotate through an exploration of the lakeside environment, having lunch and then a guided tour of the museum. It is here the students watch a short film on the history of Puffing Billy followed by a discussion that is relevant to their ages.
The students are then accompanied to the education workshop room where they engage in activities, again relevant to their age.
All the programs that are linked to The Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF) and The Victorian Curriculum and include All Aboard, Steam Machines, Steaming STEM or Innovation Station.
Copies of the relevant programs being offered can be downloaded from the Puffing Billy Education site.
Finally, the following is a short video I made on my recent trip on Puffing Billy.
Rob Greaves [Special Features Writer]